The “OCD” Overthinking Mind
My personal focus as an author, speaker, and coach is on mental health and wellness. I help people to quiet their overthinking mind and build their emotional muscle. I have learned and experienced first hand that a trained mind can help to quiet an overthinking mind. I have also learned that the overthinking mind of someone who lives with mental illness is not the same as the overthinking mind of someone who does not, but that ultimately both can be trained. The difference is that people with mental illness require a much greater support system and more varied approaches, which sometimes include medication, as well as deeper trainings such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
I have chosen the topic of the OCD overthinking mind for two main reasons: One, because May is mental health awareness month. Two, because I feel as if anxiety and depression are getting most of the attention these days. Less is known about OCD which makes it harder to reduce the stigma around it.
When thoughts spin out of control, becoming so intense and intrusive that they take over against our will—that’s OCD. When habits turn into all-consuming rituals that are performed to rid us of the overwhelming feelings of fear and dread—that’s OCD.
As its name implies, OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) is a disorder characterized by two general groups of symptoms:
- Obsessions – intrusive, unwelcome, distressing thoughts and mental images about things like dirt and contamination, the need for order or symmetry, hoarding and saving
- Compulsions – repetitive behaviors like washing, cleaning, counting, and checkingthat are meant to cancel the bad thoughts and bring control, certainty, and relief
Although a person with OCD usually recognizes that the urge to wash or check is ridiculous and senseless, the feeling is so strong that “the untrained mind becomes overwhelmed and the person with OCD gives in and performs the compulsive behavior.” (Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, Brain Lock, 1996)
In his book, Dr. Schwartz demonstrates that “there is a huge difference in the impact an obsessive thought or urge has on a trained mind compared to what it has on an untrained mind.” Schwartz offers a specific CBT training known as “The Four-Step Self-Treatment Method” which proves that the OCD overthinking mind can indeed be trained.
The biggest problem in OCD is the overthinking: the inappropriate appraisal—the vicious cycle of negative evaluation and assessment. When something seems “off” and feels “imperfect,” that moment of imperfection gets filled with threat, excessive worry, endless doubt, mental dwelling and negotiating. For this reason this condition has been referred to as an “insatiable monster.” The more you give in, the hungrier it gets.
We now know that OCD is related to a biochemical problem in the brain due to what Dr. Schwartz refers to as “Brain Lock.” He explains that “four key structures of the brain become locked together, and the brain starts sending false messages that the person cannot readily recognize as false… The brain gets “stuck in gear” and can’t shift to the next thought.”
OCD affects one person in forty in the general population. The actual experience of it, however, varies in degree from mild to severe depending on the symptoms. Despite the degree of severity, a common symptom of the OCD overthinking mind is the debilitating indecision and doubt. These are both the natural consequences of this brain state, along with its natural byproduct—shame.
In particular, victims of OCD who live with intrusive thoughts about dirt and contamination have unfounded fears of contracting a dreadful illness and therefore abnormal concerns about germs. For this reason they become hyper vigilant—feeling compelled to live “on guard,” as if it is their ongoing duty and lifelong responsibility to control all conditions in order to prevent every possible threat and always ensure their ultimate health and safety.
In order to find relief, people with OCD often perform the compulsive ritual of asking questions to seek reassurance and maintain control. These questions all come from an innocent place—with no intent to attack, judge, or be rude. The only intention is to find temporary relief from their own uncomfortable and intrusive thoughts and to “protect” themselves. Most people don’t understand this and therefore misjudge.
Here is one example that will more clearly demonstrate this type of repetitive questioning and the circular, “spin-style” way of thinking that goes along with the debilitating doubt and indecision while seeking certainty around health related decisions.
Imagine having to find a new spa to get aesthetic services like waxings, manicures, and pedicures. To the average person this would probably be a simple task: ask a friend for a referral or simply call a place nearby to book a convenient day and time. And you may or may not feel the need to ask some hygiene-related questions.
To a person living with OCD, however, this would be a much more complicated task. It would probably begin with researching different spas in the area on the Internet and then reading as many reviews as possible. This would be followed by phone calls to speak with the managers of various spas to ask and perhaps even re-ask some very specific questions about their hygiene practices. Finally, each location would have to be visited in order to see it first-hand and be able to observe the goings-on and ask any furtherquestions and perhaps to repeat some of the original ones—to gain greater clarification and trust. You see, lack of trust, too, is another component of OCD, and this is why it has also been labeled as the “doubting disease.”
The conversation out loud with the manager would sound something like this: What procedures do you follow between clients? How is the area cleaned/are the instruments sterilized? Do the estheticians always wear gloves? Is there a liner that is used for pedicures? Can I bring my own instruments? How do I properly sterilize them?…
While asking these questions and hearing the responses, there would be additional questions and intrusive thoughts spinning around in the OCD mind such as: How can I possibly trust their sterilization procedures when I can’t really trust anyone else but me? (People tend to cut corners these days). What if there is a hole in the liner? Should I request a double liner for the pedicure as an extra precaution? Like, what if the person ahead of me had warts? Could I then get warts? What if my esthetician makes a nick in my skin and draws blood—what germs may be transmitted during my service—what dreadful illness could I contract?
At this point there could be days or even weeks of deliberation before a final decision is made, as well as several visits to the spas for reassurance. Once the decision is finally made, only then can the appointment get booked. And sometimes even then doubts may continue to arise around whether or not you’ve made the best possible decision. Finally, the day of the appointment brings still more anxious thoughts and repeated questions for reassurance.
If you’re jaw has dropped in bewilderment, then you have fully immersed yourself in the exhaustive, vicious cycle of the OCD overthinking mind. If this does not surprise you, then you may be a person living with OCD. Please note that this is but one example of a decision to be made. Now imagine the vast number of decisions that need to be made on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis…
As a result of having to perform exhaustive rituals like these, people living with OCD often have a constant companion—overbearing shame. Sometimes the hardest part of being obsessive-compulsive is much more than the doubt itself. It’s the demeaning looks, the belittling expressions, the rude comments, and the humiliating outbursts that can come while the questions are being asked and/or the rituals performed, even from loved ones!
Over time perhaps people living with OCD get used to apologizing for the unnecessary or repetitive questions and for their lack of trust, or maybe they never get used to it and always feel different—like they never belong.
The real danger is when this “OCD shame” gets internalized and begins to define the person you are. It is this underlying chronic shame that is the primary cause of the invisible suffering.
My ultimate intention is to educate and advocate—to be a voice for the OCD victim and for the OCD trainings. My mission is twofold: First, to educate those who are unaware of this condition so they can become more aware and understanding of people’s needs and QUESTIONS. Second, to support those who are living with this condition, to help them reduce the weight of their overbearing shame by separating the person from the condition. You are not your OCD. It does not define the essence of you. Nor should it prevent you from feeling a sense of belonging.
It, too, would not be fair to neglect the amazing qualities of an obsessive-compulsive person. Those suffering with mild OCD function well within society and tend to blend in, unnoticed. Most people would have no idea about their invisible suffering. They can also be incredibly neat, organized, and disciplined people who know how to get things done.
This person living with an OCD overthinking mind could be me—it could be you—it could be the person standing right beside you. What I know for sure is that there are too many people living with this condition, walking around feeling exhausted from the indecision and burdened by shame.
By educating, communicating, and telling our stories, we can lessen the stigma and the shame that surround OCD.
P.S.- If you would like to learn more about OCD, I highly recommend Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz’s amazing book, Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior.